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S'more Research

The Famous “Marshmallow Test” Of Kids’ Self-Discipline Missed Something Big

In 1970, a Stanford psych professor devised a test to determine if self-discipline was a long-term predictor for success in kids. The test — known as ” The Marshmallow Experiment” — determined that childhood self-discipline was, in fact, a powerful predictor of young adult studiousness, obesity, substance abuse, and attentiveness. After 4 decades, researchers discovered the test might also say something about the kid’s street smarts.

The Original Test
The original test involved a kid, between the ages of 3 and 5, sitting in a room with a marshmallow in front of them, who was given a choice: Eat the marshmallow now or wait 15 minutes — an eternity in Kid Time — and get 2 marshmallows. Of the 600 subjects, two-thirds ate the marshmallow and the other third just smelled it, pet it, or salivated quietly until delicious validation arrived.

In follow-up studies when those same kids were about to go to college, researchers found the self-disciplined third had a lower body mass index, higher S.A.T. scores, fewer problems with drugs and attention span. So, parents everywhere rushed to torture their kids with marshmallows in hopes of seeing their futures. The Flaw
Celeste Kidd was a PhD candidate in brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester who thought about the marshmallow test with a fresh perspective a few years ago after watching how kids behaved at a homeless shelter. When families all shared one large common area, kids who managed to get a toy or a treat were at risk of losing it to a bigger, faster kid.

“I thought, ‘All of these kids would eat the marshmallow right away,'” Kidd said (presumably while hoarding all her marshmallows).

The Fix
Kidd wanted to determine the role trust (or lack of it) played in The Great Marshmallow prophecy, so she added a step to the original test. Before the kids were offered marshmallows, they were first given lame art supplies and a promise of better stuff if they waited to play with them. Then, with half the kids, the researchers soon returned, saying they didn’t actually have better Crayons or stickers to play with after all.When they got to the original test, the kids who were failed in the promise of better art supplies waited an average 3 minutes before scarfing down the marshmallow, while those who’d just finished making new masterpieces for their refrigerators while covered in Frozen stickers waited an average 12 minutes before eating the treat.

The Verdict
“Delaying gratification is only the rational choice if the child believes a second marshmallow is likely to be delivered after a reasonably short delay,” Kidd said.

If you want to marshmallow test your kid, go for it; just don’t assume their future is doomed if they gobble that sucker up the second you leave the room. For starters, the test is a better predictor of success than failure: Those who pass are extremely likely to be successful in years to come, but plenty of kids who ate the marshmallow in the original test turned out just fine as well.

More importantly, it might just be that you played “Got Your Nose” one too many times on a quick learner.

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